Barrelhouse Presents is our monthly reading series at Petworth Citizen in Washington, DC. It's our chance to share work from writers appearing in literary magazines and small presses we love. On Saturday, July 19th at 7 PM, Barrelhouse Presents Springgun Press with Meg Ronan, Michael Flatt, and Joe Hall.
Ahead of the reading, poetry editor Dan Brady sat down with Meg Ronan to talk about her book the obligatory garnish arguement.
I’ve been lucky enough to hear you read a few times now, so I wanted to ask about the performativity of these poems. The book is aware of itself as a book, as an object being read by an audience. Does that present any special challenges when reading to a live audience?
I have noticed that I always look pissed off & am rolling my eyes in pictures of myself reading from the book. That’s a consequence of reading poems that explicitly berate the audience for reading them. But whatev.
Really, I love reading, mostly, when I'm excited about what I'm reading. It's really fun for me. But sometimes I mess up and read something I'm not excited about at that moment, and then it’s not so much fun for anyone. So the biggest challenge is just keeping my energy up and staying excited about the poem every time I read it. I do imagine little personas/scenarios/tones for the voices of the flarfy sections, and I wrote the oga sections a lot through sound & rhythm, so part of the “performativity” for me is that I do read it kind of like a script; that’s part of what’s fun about reading it for me, but I have heard them in my head in a really specific way for a long time. I am not the kind of reader who can, like, stop in the middle of a line and make an aside. The rhythm/voices I hear in my head don’t really allow for that kind of interruption. But anyway it's limiting to have the sound so rigid in my head. That hurts my ability to read it well because I stop re-imagining it every time I read it. I had a really good experience w/ my editors, where I was able to re-imagine how I heard some of the lines based on their suggestions, so I'm trying to remember to hear/perform the lines differently. To be open to that & to be able to read it TO the actual live audience instead of at the live audience. Because while a lot of the energy of other poems I have relies heavily on sound/rhythm, & those poems can tolerate the kind of script-like/falling back into the groove performance I am used it, it does feel like a lot of the energy of this book relies on the address to the audience, and to lose that is a big problem. So, for example, the dirty sluts line that you mention in the next question. . . I originally had that line at the end of a stanza and I imagined it, while still really funny & disturbing, as more sincerely insulting, kind of a fuck you peace out moment from the writer to the audience. I guess I found it funny in some ways and I was interested in what would make a blogger feel that way about their audience. But Mark & Derrick at SpringGun suggested moving that to the beginning of the stanza and we talked about how they were reading it and it really became better for me there in this new interpretation where the blogger was more lightheartedly referring to his audience as dirty sluts. It was funnier to me to be able to see it as a warm opening to a sincere thank you, to imagine the different kind of flippancy, the different tone in that gesture, & now it’s one of my favorite lines to read. The voices keep asking the audience wtf they would read this book, there's blame/shaming being directed in & out in that, &there are also sections thanking the audience, as if the reading is a favor, or complimenting the audience, etc., and there are moments of sincerity, I think, in even the most problematic or flippant of these gestures. So, long way of saying, I didn't write those sections, I just copied & pasted & cut & rearranged them, and the challenge in keeping my energy up and reading them well is in remembering that and remembering that there are a lot of ways here to re-think the voices and how/why they are addressing an audience.
The tonal range is interesting to me in that there are these sudden pops into seemingly different voices (“Thanks for reading my blog, you dirty sluts!”). Can you talk about how these elements/voices came together?
“Thanks for reading my blog, you dirty sluts!” is the most commented upon line in the book.
Well, I started writing oga at a time when I was actually having trouble writing anything. &I was frustrated and wanted to figure out why I seemed to want to write so much if it didn't seem there was anything I wanted to write in particular. I had somehow got this terrible idea that I had to justify the choice I’d made to construct this identity/life as a writer, and that I was just doing these things to cling to that identity. This is a problem I don't have anymore. I was also having a sort of reading paralysis. I was anxious and insecure (these are problems I still have) about what I hadn't read / what I wasn't reading / I would get stuck in some book and then not read anything for weeks bc of my guilt over not finishing that. Stuff like that. &then from there I started thinking about what activities/behaviors/desires/needs/products/objects gets characterized as necessary or required or obligatory or standard or basic vs. excessive or luxurious or whathaveyou. Maybe thinking about these categories has something to do with the different tones in the book. I think maybe. But I wrote the phrase “the obligatory garnish argument” as kind of a name for this problem, just a placeholder for my own head to hold these ideas, and I liked the way it sounded, and I wrote lists of words that had similar sounds in them, and wrote the “obligatory garnish argument” sections using those, and along the way generating this imaginary luxury oxygen garden, with all of its guards and barns and policies and identities and politics and philosophers, that I think of all of those sections revolving around. That part seems only important for my own brain. & I started generating the flarfy sections with results from searching the phrase “why are you still reading this” which for me came from that place of kind of genuine curiosity but also kind of hostile self-attack in my questions of like, hey, why are you doing these things why does it feel so important to you? Along the way I got more and more interested in the rhetoric of blame/accusation and in what varying situations the language of “why are you still doing something” or “thanks for still doing this thing” come up and also did searches for phrases like “thanks for reading this” “why are you still suffering” and “why are you still hungry.” One of my favorite sections is taken from a suicide prevention website, & the writer saying “If you’re still reading this page, I am so grateful.” That might be a tonal outlier in the book, and it was really important to me to include that alongside “Thanks for reading my blog, you dirty sluts!” and the other writer/audience dynamics going on. I was also interested in how kind of more sound-dense/traditionally poetic language could sit next to flarfy language, in what I personally get (if it’s the same satisfaction or different satisfaction or what) out of playing with these kinds of language that I was, at that moment, seeing as separate, and in seeing if that was even accurate. So, that’s literally the story of how these different tones all ended up together for me. I find the jumps between the different tones sometimes fun and sometimes disturbing, actually in a pretty easy/nonconfrontational way in these poems. I’d be interested in trying to do more aggressive tonal shifts in the future. But I find that a lot of my process ends up being about finding pleasing/disturbing juxtapositions. Not always, there are lots of other composing games I play to try to create something exciting, but a lot of times, my process is about finding the elements that create a feeling/understanding/experience in the moment of juxtaposition that just wouldn’t be created if only one kind of tone or language or subject matter or mood were hanging out by itself. Also I get bored easily, bc a lot of the agreed upon routines of this life we live and the things we say and write are boring, and poetry is my primary way of talking about or pushing against or escaping that, or really just exercising the way my mind works through these jumps, bc I think that’s kind of natural for me, but is generally repressed. So jumping between tones is one way to make myself not bored, one of many ways, sometimes not being bored means actually repeating the same thing as many times as I can stand, & there are other games to play, but I guess this one is to see what I can hold together.
You’re a big presence here in the DC literary community, from attending and hosting readings to working at Bridge Street Books. What role does community play in shaping your work?
ONE thing is that I'm learning a lot from the writers here and the writers they bring to town and I get exposed to. There's so much going on here that's been happening so long before I was around, so I'm lucky to get to learn from all the things people do (reading series/events, presses, journals, publishing, thinking, living) & how they do them.
ANOTHER THING is that it’s been important for me to have an audience/see an audience for others here & the different ways I imagine/understand that audience probably shapes how I am writing at any given time.
LAST THING FOR NOW: It’s possible that I write poems mostly because I’m lonely/frustrated w/ the limits to the kinds of community/intimacy I run up against every second of every day & it’s a way for me to hear fun&confusion&intimacy and insist on fun&confusion&intimacy and create fun&confusion&intimacy and struggle through the limits to/hypothesize new ways of fun&confusion&intimacy. Right now this sounds pretty true to me. Who knows. My brain has a lot of limits so I need to interact with people a lot to give it new ways of imagining/creating/feeling/knowing fun&confusion&intimacy.
What are you working on now?
Mostly trying to focus more on playing/less on working, which is hard work, mostly just trying to be a human who lives creatively. Been playing with (always/intermittently) some collaborative ideas w/ Alison Strub and another collaboration w/ Alyse Knorr that's inspired by the characters Poison Ivy & Harley Quinn/their friendship/our friendship. Playing with a new thing I’m calling “Scoot” right now that kind of revolves around my desire to live a life more grounded in creativity and relationships. That’s the thing, right? Playing with some other poems about friendship/anxiety/etc. etc. etc.
Photo by Jason Slesinski.